I was asked to preach at an Ascension Day Eucharist in northern Virginia on the occasion of the commissioning of parishioners from area churches for missionary activity in various parts of the world. My sense is that the mission that carries the Good News is both irrepressible, irreplaceable and completely sure. That, of course, is not the same as any specific missionary, who can indeed be squashed, replaced, and lives with all sorts of insecurities. The mission of God IS the future. The mission of the church is very tenuous indeed. Here is what I had to say:
A Sermon on the Ascension and Mission.
(on the Gospel: Mark 16: 9-15, 19-20)
How many of you are being commissioned?
This sermon is for you.
I have been asked to briefly say something about mission on the occasion of the celebration of the Ascension.
The account of the ascension in the Gospel of Mark includes a version of Great Commission- the charge to go out into the world and proclaim good news ever where and to the whole creation; thus the relation of the occasion of celebrating the Ascension and having the commissioning of missionaries.
The missionary vocation is the first example of our being Christ’s body in the world - He has ascended, we are here, let’s get on with it!
Careful readers will note that verses 16-18 of Matthew 16 were left out of this reading tonight. These verses include a passage that seems sternly exclusive about the relation between being baptized and being saved, and a list of signs that accompany being believers – casting out demons, speaking in tongues, picking up snakes, drinking poison without harm, and curing the sick. But, if the longer ending of the Gospel of Mark is to be referenced at all, I think we ought to go for the gusto and look at the whole thing!
While I am not promoting snake handling and drinking poison, the list holds a certain fascination. It concerns signs of power that accompany the proclamation of Good News. The one who proclaims is more powerful than demons, the language, poisons, and illness.
Mission is indeed powerful. As one called by God in Jesus Christ into mission – going out and proclaiming good news - there is nothing in all creation that you need to fear. The power that you carry with you is greater than you can imagine.
Now I have to tell you as a missionary, if you don’t already know, this power is nothing personal. You are being sent out to proclaim good news to the whole creation and there is every possibility that the demons, the snakes in the grass and the poison in the cup and the sickness that lays waste, will all in fact get to you.
Missionaries are forever being beset with doubts, fears, wild beasts, poison in word and cup and illness. If dysentery does not get you the bishop might; if you are not bit by a rabid dog, you are bitten by a jealous co-worker. If you were not sick to start off with you may be sick before it is over. The promise is not about your personal power.
So if this power is nothing personal – if the missionary is often powerless – what are these signs that accompany the proclaiming of the good news about? They are about the Good News itself – it is more powerful than the assaults against its messengers.
The Good News can be stated in many ways. Here is one: The Good News is that God’s love in Jesus Christ is irrepressible.
Nothing can stop it. It does not matter that you are a good missionary or a bad one, it does not matter if you are well received or not, it does not matter if you succeed or fail, it does not matter if you get it right or not. The Good News WILL be heard, it cannot help being heard. If we did not declare it the stones would shout out.
The Good News is not about me, or you, as missionaries. The Good News is about itself. It is God’s love in Jesus Christ that is irrepressible, not mine, not yours. It is God’s love that cannot be stopped, cannot be refused or fail. It is God’s love that is always full and adequate and right. Not ours.
So the first command of missionary activity is, “go out into the world and proclaim the Good News to the whole creation.” It is unaccompanied by any command or demand that you be good at it. God’s love in Jesus Christ is irrepressible, ours is quite repressible. Do not worry…the Good News will get published, through you, around you, over you, under you, or in spite of you. But it will. As a missionary I find that a comfort.
Now, about the strange statement in the end of the Gospel of Mark, “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned:” I do not believe we ought to get in the condemning business. I don't think this is about those who we are missioners to - it is about us as believers. I invite you to think about this statement as being about us – the missionaries, the carriers of the Good News, and not about those who hear the Good News and do or do not believe as a result.
If the “one who believes” is any of use as missionaries, the value or success of our missionary activity is that we believe the Good News in Jesus Christ ourselves (and are thus baptized in fact or in spirit) and thus proclaim that truth.
The failure is if we try to be missionaries but do not really believe. Having proclaimed the truth, the matter rests with God.
Now here is the hard question for people who are missionaries: Do you believe and are you baptized into the good news in Jesus Christ –that God’s love extends to the whole world and thus even to you, irrepressibly? If you do, then you and your commission are saved. If you do not, then you might as well stop now. Your vocation is doomed. But even then the Good News will still get published.
Missionaries are not extraordinary, they are simply called. We might hope that all God’s people are called to do this, but somehow not all hear the call or respond. That you have heard and respond is something for which we give thanks to God.
I believe what we are called to do and be is believers who can’t help telling, witnessing, living the power of God’s love in Jesus Christ. How well we do this is another matter. Be of good cheer, even if done poorly, God will still be proclaimed.
A whole variety of people will help you be the good Witness, the good missionary. There will also be people who will be critics, who will rate your progress, grade your efforts, recommend or not your future engagement in specific missionary work of this or that organization. And of course you will seek their approval, for they are put over you as authorities to be respected.
But let’s be clear: no bishop, no diocese, no church (The Episcopal Church, the Episcopal Church in the Sudan, the Church of Liberia, or more ecumenically, other sorts of Anglican bodies, the Lutheran Church, the Roman Catholic Church, etc), no church institution of any sort, has the final word on the value of your efforts as a missionary. Its real value is hidden in the inevitability, the irrepressibility of God’s love in Jesus Christ for the whole world.
The final word of this homily concerns power: God’s love in Jesus Christ is greater than demons, poison, snakes, tongues or illness. God’s love in Jesus Christ is greater than death, and surely greater than our feeble efforts to proclaim that good news. We are not called to complete the Good News, it is already complete. We are called to be as good a witness as we can be, and give the rest to God, from whom it all came – the love and the call both.
So, dear friends, having been called to so high a vision, to be missionaries,
and yourself experiencing God’s irrepressible love in Jesus Christ for you and all creation,
and secure in your salvation,
get out there and be instruments of that Love, proclaiming it to the whole creation, and be filled with the power to overcome snakes, real and imagined. AMEN.